DECEMBER 23, 2018
EVERY AMERICAN PRESIDENT since Roosevelt used the first hundred days of their administration to lay a foundation for the rest of their presidency. They spent their first three months passing key legislation, signing executive orders, and sending cabinet nominees to the Senate for confirmation. A few presidents managed to get significant things accomplished within this window, but generally the first hundred days is more marketing gimmick than substantive governance.
For two writers, though, the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s presidency was as holy a time as Advent or Eastertide. While Trump released a “contract with America” that resulted in Muslim bans and tax cuts for the rich, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Diana Butler Bass underwent vows to write books. They understood their work as direct counter-arguments to the 45th president, but Bass and Hartgrove imagined their opposition in very different ways.
Hartgrove aimed Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion at the president’s most fervent base, white Evangelical Christians, and he writes in a pattern they are familiar with. Hartgrove tells the story of his life — a story of conversion as swift and miraculous as that of St. Paul’s. But instead of being blinded by a flash of light, Hartgrove’s eyes were opened by a black man holding a Styrofoam cup.
Hartgrove was born in the Deep South to a Southern Baptist family. As a child, he was taught that the United States is always on the right side of history, and that if Jesus were to register to vote he would undoubtedly declare himself a Republican. He fully embraced the teaching of his church and believed he would best serve God and country with a career in politics. At the spring-footed age of 16 he became a Senate page to his hero, James Strom Thurmond.
Thurmond has the distinction of being the longest-serving senator in the history of the United States. He is also infamous — some would say morally bankrupt — for conducting the longest ever single-person filibuster when, for over 24 straight hours, he tried to block the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He continued this opposition into the 1960s, fighting legislation that was intended to end segregation and ensure full voting rights for African Americans. All the while, Thurmond denied he was a bigot. Possibly this is true since he fathered an illegitimate child with his black housekeeper. However, he went to his deathbed keeping this relationship a secret. Whether or not Thurmond had malice in his heart toward people with dark skin, we may never know. It is an objective fact, though, that the policies he supported were racist in their effects.
Hartgrove traveled to Washington, DC, ready to do the Lord’s work, eagerly joining Thurmond’s vanguard of maintaining law and order in an increasingly brown and, as they saw it, unruly society. Things went well for Hartgrove until the day he walked his own Damascus road. It was a path that ran from the Capitol to Union Station. As he left Thurmond’s office after a long day of work, he passed an African American holding a cup. The man asked Hartgrove for spare change. Hartgrove didn’t see the person, not really, and he kept walking. A few strides later he realized what he had done. In his mind he imagined the panhandler as dangerous. What he saw was the stereotypical “dangerous black man” and a member of the “undeserving poor.” Hartgrove moved his body quickly out of the way to keep himself safe. He gave no thought to this person’s humanness. A verse from the Bible came into Hargrove’s mind: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to the least of these, ye did it not to me.” Hartgrove has spent the rest of his life trying to recover from a religion that has made him, along with the rest of the world, worse.
Hartgrove makes a distinction between slaveholder religion and a Christianity centered upon the witness of Jesus in the Gospels. He believes that the dominant and controlling religion of the contemporary United States is a direct descendant of the religion created by America’s white slave owners. This religion is centered upon a stark contrast between those going to heaven and those going to hell. For the slaveowners and their spiritual descendent today, Christianity involves believing in a Jesus that delivers people from the eternal punishments of a vindictive God and then mandates that these followers live pious lives. The piety the slaveholders ordered folks to embody required obedience to one’s superiors and embracing one’s place within the hierarchy of society. If a person was a slave, their duty was to obey all of their master’s rules as if their master was God. God demanded the slaves work as productively as they could and shun every opportunity of escape. If a slave did these things, they would receive salvation. Salvation was not in this life, though — only in the world to come.
Hartgrove points out how convenient this religion was for plantation owners. It helped to keep their slaves docile and efficient. Plantation owners propagated and enforced this religion by paying pastors’ salaries and terminating preachers if they brought up forbidden topics. They put conditions around what traveling evangelists could say to the slaves working their fields (the story of the Exodus and the topic of emancipation, for example, were expressly banned), just as they forbade slaves from learning to read and therefore interpreting the Bible for themselves. It is no coincidence that the Bible Belt — the beating heart of fundamentalist Christianity — matches almost exactly the outline of the slave-holding states. It is this, the religion of the Confederacy, Hartgrove argues, that forms the basis of belief for white Evangelical voters, eight out of 10 of whom voted for Donald Trump.
Resistance to Donald Trump, Hartgrove believes, must start within the white Evangelical church since they are the ones that put Trump into office in the first place. Individuals in these churches must unlearn the whiteness they’ve been taught. They must understand America’s true history, a history in which the category of white was created so there would be the corresponding designation: black. America’s history also includes Christian preachers using the Bible to justify the enslavement of people white America judged to be black. But more than merely learning the true history of the nation, Hartgrove believes white folks must learn to be quiet, to give up their places of primacy, and listen to voices unlike their own. White America must give their attention along with their power to the people they have rejected and actively oppressed.
This process of listening cannot be short-lived. It will be uncomfortable for white people to no longer be in the lead. It will be painful to many of them. Some of them will be infuriated when they are told to remain silent while others have their say. Yet white folks have set the agenda in America for four hundred years. Handing over the microphone for a few minutes will not square the balance. Generations of listening to black voices is likely what the country will need. Hartgrove says once white folks have listened, they must be ready to change their lives — including their religion — based upon what they hear from marginalized peoples. If white evangelicals do these three things — listen, stay put, and change their lives — it is possible they could experience conversion from the slaveholder religion they presently follow to a Christianity that mimics the Jesus of the Gospels. Hartgrove implies that if enough white evangelicals become Christians, the country might be spared another president like Donald Trump.
In my mind, Hartgrove’s proposal is a big ask. I doubt a large percentage of white evangelicals will be willing to cede their power to black America and listen to critiques of what they and their forebears have done. That is not to say Hartgrove’s agenda should not be pressed, but we should be realistic about how widespread this approach is likely to become. Diana Butler Bass proposes something that, on its face, seems less daunting, but she is similarly seismic in what she hopes to accomplish.
Bass began writing a book on gratitude in the spring of 2016. By then the presidential election was heating up and personal difficulties, as well as the trauma of watching the campaign in real time, slowed the progress of her book. After the inauguration she dedicated herself to one hundred days of gratitude in protest of Donald Trump. This seems like an odd thing. Gratitude at the start of Trump’s administration? I can think of many possible dispositions one could have toward the current government, but gratitude does not make the first five hundred of them. And that, Bass points out, makes me part of the problem.
One of the first things Bass does in Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks is to make a comparison between the Germany of the 1930s and today’s United States. She is careful to note the inherent bombast in this, and to observe that, at this point at least, we should not push the analogy too far. She maintains, however, that there is a common touchpoint. In Germany, a citizenry well versed in Christian theology turned their perception of gratitude into a path of individual salvation and personal comfort. A religion that had concern for others turned in on itself. And when the German people started to feel they were not receiving from life everything they deserved, deep discontent and anger permeated public conversation. Bass is too careful to say this, but I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out. The Germans also had a political leader who directed popular unrest onto marginalized communities: Jews, gays, the Romani people, and so on. Bass does not follow through with this comparison, but she insinuates that the cure to what happened in Germany in the 1930s, and what is happening today in the United States, is embracing gratitude.
There are, according to Bass, two alternative ways of organizing the world: a system of quid pro quo or an outlook of pro bono. Quid pro quo could be translated as tit for tat. It is a set of expectations in which gratitude is an obligation: a benefactor gives a person something and the person receiving must repay the giver in some way. In this system, gratitude is repayment. Bass locates the origin of this arrangement in the Roman Empire. Caesar bestowed land and possession to governors who then gave portions of their holdings to local leaders, and so on. The people lower in the hierarchy, then, owed things to those above them, such as tax payments and tribute. In quid pro quo arrangements, everything that is given comes with strings attached. Humans are forever locked into a system of debt and obligation.
Quid pro quo undergirds almost every aspect of our society today. Bernie Sanders pointed to this when he attacked Hillary Clinton for taking money from Goldman Sachs both as compensation for speeches and as donations to the Clinton Foundation. Sanders wondered if Clinton would be a mere functionary for the investment bank if she won the presidency since she owed them gratitude for the money they gave her. Sanders said the country must elect someone outside the big money patronage game so they would not be under the compulsion of quid pro quo.
Donald Trump seized this situation too, but he had the opposite solution. Trump framed himself as the noblesse oblige, a man so rich and successful that he was at the top of the pyramid. Trump portrayed himself as the benefactor, and said that everyone in the political system owed him obedience and loyalty. While Sanders wanted to dismantle quid pro quo through campaign finance reform, Trump believed he could singlehandedly manage it from within by appointing people to run the government who were personally loyal to him. They would respond with gratitude to what Trump would bestow.
Bass sees Trump’s solution to the United States’s problems — leave quid pro quo in place, but elect oligarchs who will operate as beneficial patrons from within the system — as hopelessly deluded. What is needed is a pro bono approach, a societal structure focused on the common good. What the United States should not do is try to return to a time in which debt and obligation had better outcomes for certain types of folks. Instead, as Bass puts it, America should be made grateful again by radically restructuring the concept of thanksgiving. Gratitude, in her view, is being thankful for what you have and then giving to others without expectation that they pay you back. Bass uses the Golden Rule to explain how gratitude should work: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is an ethos in which we engage in work because it is the right thing to do. It restructures society away from hierarchal pyramids where we owe mounds of debt to everyone above us and count on the scraps they toss off to sustain us. A grateful society is made of a concentric ring of egalitarian circles. Each person has spheres of relation, near and far, to which they have the gift and responsibility to take care of.
At first glance, Bass’s remedy to our political maladies seems more doable than Hartgrove’s. It is easier to encourage folks to develop a more fully realized gratefulness than telling white folks to change their patterns of life because of what they have heard from oppressed communities. However, Bass points to a passage in the Hebrew Bible to flesh out what she means by a political system of gratitude. There is a prescription in the book of Deuteronomy (which, as far as we know, was never put into practice in ancient Israel) that called for the cancelation of all debts every seven years and the return of all lands to their original owners every 49. At this point, we can see how revolutionary gratitude really is. Gratitude puts dynamite to modern ideas of private property and debt. A Deuteronomy-style gratitude would upend every facet of our society.
It seems almost impossible that the American political class will come close to even considering Deuteronomy’s Jubilee stipulations, but there are schemes that could get the country closer to what Bass has in mind. For instance, the United States could pay reparations to the descendants of slaves, houses could be given to those who suffered under red lining practices, and rural Appalachians who have long been exploited by urbanites could receive educational and entrepreneurial grants. Natural resources like water could be treated as common goods in which every citizen has a share and receives dividends for its use. Health care could be classified as a universal right. It is not impossible to imagine a society based on gratitude. It merely takes courage, creativity, and trust.
On the surface, a pro bono approach might sound easy to implement. It is hard to argue against treating people with compassion and working toward a society that is equitable and just. However, a pro bono society would require the poor to be made whole for the thievery they endured at the hands of the rich. And the rich do not willingly part with their treasure. They will fight anyone who comes for it all the way to the guillotine if need be.
What we have with Hartgrove and Bass are two utopian books. They advocate corrective visions of American society that are desperately needed, but in all likelihood have no chance of gaining widespread support. It makes sense that their prescriptions are so radical. Dystopias have a way of jolting artists awake. Trump’s campaign and presidential administration provide such a contrast to the brutality of normal life that neoliberalism now seems almost kind and fair in comparison. Quietly racist things like country clubs and gated communities gave way to full-throated screams framing Mexicans as rapists and murderers, calls to erect border walls and send Mexico the bill, and defense given to “very fine people” who happen to be neo-Nazi sympathizers.
Hartgrove and Bass used the first hundred days of Trump’s presidency to encourage Americans to avoid trying to make America great again next election cycle. The United States does not need to return to how things were under Barack Obama. A return to a slightly less racist and classist society is not the answer. Its citizens must summon the courage to create something new.